Wrestlers riding momentum into showdown with Spartans

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By Jacob Gase, For the Daily
Published January 23, 2014

The shining star of this season’s Michigan wrestling team isn’t a seasoned senior or a talented junior or a much improved sophomore. Instead, it has been the sheer dominance of freshman Adam Coon.

And why not? The nation’s No. 1 heavyweight is fresh off a victory over second-ranked two-time defending NCAA champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota, was just named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week and continues to add to his undefeated streak of 23 straight victories, the greatest start in Michigan history.

But one person cannot carry an entire team — even if that person is 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds. Behind the seemingly unstoppable Coon is an entire team that appears to have caught fire at the right time. After starting the Big Ten season with three straight victories over ranked opponents, including the most recent thriller against No. 2 Minnesota, the 12th-ranked Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) will look to ride their wave of momentum to a victory over in-state rival Michigan State on Friday night at Cliff Keen Arena.

“It’s indescribable,” said fifth-year senior Eric Grajales of Michigan’s recent success. “I’ve been here for five years, and we’ve never had a complete roster like this before. It really encourages you and motivates you to work harder and to perform.”

Grajales, now ranked No. 7 in his weight class, is one of three Wolverines coming off victories over ranked opponents. In total, Michigan won six matches in the upset of Minnesota, including one victory by redshirt freshman Brian Murphy and one by freshman Connor Youtsey — two youngsters who figure to have prominent roles on this developing team.

“The momentum is only going to carry as far as how disciplined these guys are,” said Michigan assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff. “Some good things are happening for us, but really, it’s going to be about getting back to what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been training and getting ready for Friday night.”

Michigan State (0-3 Big Ten, 5-6 overall) comes to Ann Arbor struggling mightily in the Big Ten, with their closest margin of defeat coming in a 30-7 loss to Wisconsin in December. Despite the Spartans’ lack of success, the Wolverines said there will be no complacency on their part.

“Michigan State’s easy for us to get up for,” Pritzlaff said. “They’re an in-state rival in every sport here at Michigan, and a lot of these guys have wrestled each other in high school and have a little bit of a rivalry themselves. We need to go out there and let everybody know that we’re the real program in the state.”

Added Grajales: “It definitely is always a heated matchup. We always want to not only do our best, but put on a show. (We want to) prove something not only to ourselves, but to everybody in the state.”

Much like the last dual meet, the contest with Michigan State will be headlined by Coon’s bout with another top-10 heavyweight, No. 9 Mike McClure. But despite the heavy attention that will be given to this match, Michigan’s ultimate focus is on the success of the team as a whole.

“We want to go out there and dominate and wrestle hard in all 10 weight classes,” Pritzlaff said. “We want Youtsey to get us off to a strong start, and then Adam’s going to close out the door like he’s done for us all year.”

Aiming for victory against both Michigan State and other tough Big Ten opponents who lie ahead — No. 11 Ohio State and No. 1 Penn State in particular — the coaches and the wrestlers are making sure their strong start isn’t getting to them.

“We need to continue doing exactly what we’re doing right now,” Grajales said. “We’re slowly getting better and better. We’re not having fluke wins and guys doing things they shouldn’t be. Guys are performing well because they’re working hard, and they’re working hard because they’re performing well. It’s going full circle.”